Like so many of our neighbors, I was drawn to Port Townsend by saltwater and sawdust, and by the amazing wooden boats that blend those unforgettable smells into the regional culture we now call home.
My journey goes back more than 30 years when, after travelling through Port Townsend on a vacation to Olympic National Park, I discovered the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding. I was already working with wood as a carpenter, building concrete formwork for the foundations in industrial plants. I dreamt of building something more beautiful, something other than those square, plain forms, only to be discarded after the concrete set.
So, I wrote to the school, inquiring about enrolling in their program.
In September of 1988, I received a letter from Sean Lappetito, the school’s director back then, encouraging me to visit. Included with the letter was the 1989-1990 catalog, describing the school and its six-month program. At that time, tuition was $2,880 and you could enroll at the beginning of every month. Hmm.
It didn’t work out. Instead, I spent the next three decades continuing my work with concrete and steel, helping build high-tech industrial plants all over the country: Alabama, Texas, Nevada, Pennsylvania… But not Port Townsend.
Meanwhile, in Ballard…
Meanwhile, there was another journey underway, one that started in 1944.
Jacobson Brothers, boatbuilders in Ballard, Wash., were completing the construction of a new Ed Monk-designed 46-foot fishing troller. With a plumb bow, horseshoe stern and fir planking over oak frames, Hike II was launched in late March that year to start her fishing career in Alaska. Her original owners were Eric and Ellen Johnson.
Fifteen years later in 1959, Lloyd Erlandsen took possession of the boat, renaming her Lori Lu and brought her south to fish for tuna off the coast of Oregon and Washington.
The troller was rechristened again with a new name, Nestor, in 1983, when Jim and Linda Carson became the new owners. Nestor journeyed back to the salmon grounds in Alaska.
In the 1990s it was time for more than the usual year-to-year maintenance. During this time, according to survey records, the original wood bulwarks were replaced with aluminum and the planks were refastened with galvanized screws. Now 50, Nestor was ready to lower the trolling poles and continue working.
Fast forward to 2002.
Nestor was berthed in Port Townsend, awaiting the next journey when Les and Libby Schnick came looking for their next project.
The long-working troller officially retired from commercial fishing when the Schnicks took over stewardship and chose another new name, Sockeye.
This capable couple spent the next 13 years transforming Sockeye from a World War II-era fishing boat into a stately yacht. The work was never-ending. Electrical and mechanical systems were upgraded. The fish hold was removed, replaced by an aft cabin with a galley and salon. The house was rebuilt and expanded; a full pilot berth added.
Meanwhile, on Craigslist…
Six years ago, as my wife Sarah and I were contemplating retirement, moving away from the desert southwest and someday relocating to Port Townsend, I spotted a Craigslist ad for a 46-foot wooden troller called Sockeye, moored at the Boat Haven in, of all places, Port Townsend. We made a trip up, met Les and Libby and saw Sockeye in person.
The paths cross.
It was love at first sight.
I had learned to sail on small sailboats on Lake Mead, Nev. I had never seen a boat like Sockeye, 35 tons with a classic sheer line rising to her seaworthy bow, traditional pilot house and heavy stabilizer poles lashed to the mast, all powered by a Detroit 6-71 diesel, the engine that helped win World War II. I was amazed how Les, despite making so many changes to the troller, had maintained her traditional Pacific Northwest look and workboat feel.
Could we handle a boat like this? Would I be able to maintain it as well as everyone before me? Les and Libby spent untold hours patiently answering all our questions. After months trying to convince ourselves not to, with Sarah’s blessing we bought Sockeye. We spent our first night onboard on New Year’s Eve 2016.
A year later, we finally left the desert and made the move to Washington.
It’s been five years now and thanks to lots of help, we’re continuing to learn the lessons of wooden boat stewardship. With help from Les and a throng of marine trades folks at Boat Haven, Sockeye has seen three successful haul outs, navigation equipment upgrades and several plank and house wood repairs. After spending an entire career worried about plumb and level, I am now learning about sheer and camber.
I could have opted for a big, white, fiberglass boat loaded with chrome, the kind you see moored side-by-side in marinas from Seattle to Santa Monica and South Florida.
But Sockeye was a package deal. When we bought this boat, she came with new friends, a town, a home port, and a subculture unlike any other. It was no contest. We’ve never looked back.
And I still have that school catalog and the letter from Sean Lappetito. I wonder….
Note: This article first appeared in the Summer-Fall 2021 Port of Port Townsend Newsletter. Sockeye will be making her fourth visit to the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival next month.